Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 03, 2020 4:49 pm 
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Head trip

This film, which is as much a psychological melodrama as a sci-fi horror fantasy, revolves around an experiment to explore and alter the brain electronically. A young scientist, pitched over the deep end in a desperate attempt to seize and better his own late father's legacy, is working on not only mapping consciousness with electrodes and computers, but rearranging the brain, experimenting on himself. It would be nice, wouldn't it? To be able to get your head on better, rid yourself of unpleasant memories, make yourself smarter? But it's a risky business.

The film begins with young neuroscientist Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) giving a lecture - remotely, as is right for the days of pandemic. How do we capture memories? They exist as physical imprints on the brain, he says. The "R9X," the device his father had originated and he's seeking to improve upon, identifies these engrams based on their protein expressions, and transfers that data from our internal hardware to external ones. But to render them clearly, something was needed. What, class? "Emotions?" Good, Eleanor! Euphoria, fear, lust - every memory is tied to an emotional section of our brain, even ones that we bury deep in our subconscious. (Lust's not exactly an emotion, by the way.)

Pretty dry, eh? To engage yourself in this movie, filmed in wide aspect ratio (to counteract the claustrophobia, perhaps?), indoors, in semi-darkness, confined to a messy home basement DIY lab, focused on a skinny young man in a dirty T-shirt badly needing a shave, you must be intrigued by its hocus-pocus. It's as puzzling and potentially intriguing as Shane Carruth's Primer (2004). But Carruth and those friends he filmed in their garage building a time machine were operating more on the edge of possibility and the fringes of indie budgets. Minor Premise, comes off a bit slicker and also more focused on emotional turmoil. It becomes a two-hander when Ethan is joined by a talented cohort named Alli (Paton Ashbrook), who's also an ex-girlfriend, come from Stanford to help poor Ethan, who's worn out and paranoid.

The collaboration often veers into first aid but also a power struggle. Alli may also be taking over, because Ethan has become paranoid and secretive. There's another in the project who's somehow a prisoner in the house, Malcolm (Dana Ashbrook, Twin Peaks' Deputy Bobby Briggs).

In the end, the effort to transform the brain devolves into a battle between a former couple for - what? domination? sanity? But perhaps not the keys to consciousness, after all. Others may not see this issue so much, but I'd have liked it if Minor Premise's exploration of the frontiers of consciousness hadn't seemed to devolve at times into a mere struggle to make it through a long weekend.

Ethan's effort to rewire his brain to be smarter causes it to fragment disastrously, into ten different emotional centers that take over for brief periods each hour. Following this process is what becomes as confusing as anything in Primer. Also, in a way I don't begin to follow, these separate Ethans are filming each other. Time is important, and we see one big and several small digital clocks; but this doesn't help much, because exactly what time period is being traversed and how the deadlines apply never seems clear, as with your brain in a meltdown it wouldn't.

Sridharan, who's very watchable as the brilliant but overtaxed scientist, does a good job of navigating all this and acting the different Ethans who successively take over. I don't know if the ten-brains fragmentation could have been made any clearer, but he keeps them from seeming too exaggerated, and yet quite disturbing. Making something as insane as having one's brain split into multiple parts not seem completely wacko is a feat the actor performs.

It's aided by his and Alli's communicating in dry lab-speak. Whenever she asks him how he is, he always says "Fine." The contemporary, real-sounding dialogue is one of the film's best features. So are the music, the sound design, and the design of the interiors, which manages to be somehow both dingy and elegant and avoids any kind of campy "lab" look. Sridharan has a cool but compelling presence. Not that this complicated, tense drama is anything like a fun watch; but it's a promising debut for director Eric Schultz and might well deserve a second look.

Minor Premise, 95 mins., debuted at Montreal (Fantasia) Aug., 2020 and showed also Oct. 2020 at Sitges (Catalonia). Utopia Distribution will release it in theaters, virtual cinemas, and in digital and on-demand from Dec. 4, 2020.

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